Amer from a couple of years back, Berberian
Sound Studio is a film informed by the mechanics of Italian
horror, be it giallo or more supernatural tales. And like Amer,
this is not really a horror film itself, but rather a film that
uses elements of the genre to create its own little universe.
The two films have one other thing in common too – both
are a case of the King’s New Clothes – ultimately
empty exercises in pretension that far too many people will mistake
(or excuse) as art; vacuity disguised as profundity.
Set in the 1970s, the film follows socially awkward English sound
engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) as he arrives in Italy to record
the dialogue and sound effects for horror film The Equestrian
Vortex. This is a clumsy combination of Suspiria
and Mark of the Devil, with schoolgirls investigating
a witch cult while indulging in plenty of torture-filled flashbacks.
Gilderoy, more used to tranquil documentaries and kid’s
TV, is unsettled by the graphic nature of the film (none of which
we actually see) as well as feeling isolated by his surroundings,
with everyone speaking Italian and a producer (Cosimo Fisco) who
belittles and abuses him. As he tries, unsuccessfully, to get
his flight costs reimbursed, Gilderoy feels increasingly trapped
(at one point, a character even asks if he has tried to ‘escape’
rather than quit) – and his mental state begins to crumble.
All this is, so far, quietly impressive. The film develops a slowly
creeping sense of things not being quite right – questions
about how Gilderoy came to be chosen for the job, a denial that
his flight ever took place reducing his angry bluster to confused
mumbles and hints from a voice actress that something sinister
is afoot all builds towards a descent into darkness. Jones’
performance is spot-on, a repressed Englishman who is continually
out of the loop (it could be argued that the viewer would feel
his confusion more if the Italian dialogue wasn’t subtitled,
but there you go) and out of his depth with the excitable, emotional
and often creepy Italians – more sensitive viewers find
the portrayal of every Italian as sullen, rude, sleazy
and creepy to be a bit bigoted, but I’m sure these negative
traits are just to heighten the sense of unease.
Director Peter Strickland certainly knows his Italian horror,
and the atmosphere of those films is captured in the astonishing,
gorgeous visual style of the film and the soundtrack, one of the
most astonishing I’ve heard in many a year. However, this
is less a love letter to the genre than a poison pen letter, with
the film being produced shown to be a grubby, clichéd,
gratuitously violent and sexually perverted movie made by a slimy
director (Antonio Mancino) who trots out insincere excuses for
the excesses whilst sexually harassing the women working on the
project. There’s no evident love for the genre here, and
Gilderoy’s English disgust (and sense of moral superiority)
for the film could all too easily be seen as reflecting Strickland’s.
Still, none of this is a deal breaker. Plenty of horror films
have poked fun at the genre after all, and while there are no
laughs to be had here, the film offers enough to override any
misgivings about certain plot elements. The oddball background
characters, sinister without actually doing anything, the creation
of the sound effects using fruit and vegetables that are shot
in such close-up and connected so directly to descriptions of
murder and mutilation that they start to become as visually repulsive
as a mangled corpse and the slow, steady increase in the paranoia,
the clues, the sugestions and sense of things being not quite
right are all highly impressive.
Then, 70 minutes or so into the story, Berberian Sound
Studio vanishes so far up its own arse that there is
no coming back and effectively wipes out any sense of goodwill
is a giant ‘fuck you’ to anyone who had actually followed
the plot so far. There are those that will claim the final fifteen
minutes to be a triumph of audacious filmmaking, a descent into
Gilderoy’s internal madness, a finale that demands analysis,
interpretation and (of course) a certain intellectual awareness.
I’d say that it is a spectacularly self-indulgent act of
cinemasturbation that sets out to insult any viewers, simple-minded
unadventurous sheep that they are, who might have foolishly expected
the story to reach a conclusion.
The film opens with spectacularly lurid fake titles for The Equestrian
Vortex. Quite frankly, by the end I would’ve much preferred
to have seen that.